Fast convolutions (III)

These are some more remarks about the performance of the convolution methods described so far. I will be leaving the brute-force algorithm out for obvious reasons.

The plot below represents input size (in pixels) in the x axis, and convolution time (in seconds) in the y axis. So, if you go to x=4096 that means “a convolution of a 4096×4096 image by a 4096×4096 kernel”.

Even competition between FFT-based vs. separable convolution methods

Two conclusions can be made from the plot, which confirm what was explained in my previous post:

1- For large kernels (as large as the image itself) the separable convolution method is O(n^3) and times get to absurd levels very quickly. If you are dealing with large generic images/kernels, the FFT-based method is the way to go.

2- The FFT-based method uses the Fast Fourier Transform, which is O(n^2路log(n)) thanks to some decomposition technique that requires the size of the input data to be (padded to) a power-of-2. For this reason, it takes the same amount of time to do a convolution on a 257×257 image/kernel than on a 512×512 image/kernel, because both cases operate on 512×512 buffers after all. This is why the graph for the FFT method is stepped. When x crosses a power-of-2, the running time goes up all of a sudden and stays stable until the next power-of-2.

The plot was generated with my current implementation of both convolution methods in RCSDK. My FFT uses the Cooley-Tukey algorithm, and everything (i.e., FFT, IFFT, point-wise products, and 1D separable convolutions) makes use of multi-threading. There’s always room for improvement, but the running times seem pretty decent, as we’re speaking of <2s for images up to 4096×4096 in a 16-thread CPU. An implementation in CUDA would be (orders of magnitude) faster, though. 馃槢

A couple more remarks:

1- The graph of the FFT-based method wouldn’t change if smaller kernels were used, as the algorithm requires the kernel to be padded to the size of the image. However, the graph of the separable method becomes less steep when very small kernels are used:

Separable convolution with a fixed 11×11 kernel (in orange)

2- The running time of the FFT/IFFT is not exactly a trivial subject. Speed in FFT/IFFT algorithms depends not only on the size of the data, but also on the data itself. While generating the above plots, I came across some ‘anomalies’ in the time measurements. Some kernels or some images produced faster or slower results. Some combinations would even produce non-flat steps in the staircase-looking graph. That’s normal, but worth mentioning.

Fast convolutions (II)

I will analyze the algorithmic complexity of the convolution algorithms described in my previous posts.

To make things simpler, let’s assume that the dimensions of the image are >= the dimensions of the convolution kernel, and that both are square, with dimensions SxS and sxs, respectively.

1- Naive algorithm — O(n^4)

“w路h operations for each of the W路H image pixels”.

i.e., S路S路s路s operations. This is quadratic with a heavy constant for tiny kernels, but quickly becomes quartic for medium-to-large kernels.

The auxiliary buffer can be identical in size and bit-depth to the original image. So the memory usage factor is 2x.

2- Separable convolution — O(n^3)

“One 1D convolution for each row + One 1D convolution for each column”.

i.e., 2路S路S路s operations. This is quadratic with a bad constant for small kernels, but becomes cubic for large kernels.

Remarkably, the total running time depends on the dimensions of the image -and- the dimensions of the kernel.

Again, the auxiliary buffer can be identical in size and bit-depth to the original image. So the memory usage factor is 2x.

3- Convolution theorem — O(n^2路log(n))

“Two FFTs + One point-wise product + One IFFT”.

Let’s call S’ to the closest power-of-2 such that S’>=S. Then a proper implementation of the FFT/IFFT does (approx.) 2路S’路S’路log(S`) operations, while the point-wise product does S’路S’ operations. This makes the algorithm O(S’路S’路log(S’)) with some heavy (quadratic) overhead due to the memory copying, padding, and the point-wise product.

Remarkably, the total running time is independent of the size of the kernel.

This algorithm is quite memory hungry, though, because two S’xS’ complex-number buffers are required. This means two floating-point numbers per entry (i.e., the real/imaginary coefficients). The algorithm starts by copying the image/kernel to the real part of the corresponding complex-number buffer, leaving the imaginary coefficient and the surface excess filled with zeroes. Then the FFTs/product/IFFT happen in-place.

So the auxiliary memory required is 4路S’路S’ floating-point numbers.

In the worst case where S is a power-of-2 plus 1, S’ gets nearly twice as large as S. If the original image is 8-bit and we are using single-precision floating-point math for the FFT/IFFT, this means a memory usage factor of 64x. In the case of an HDR (single-precision floating-point) grayscale image, we are speaking of a worst case scenario of 16x. In average, however, the memory usage factor is around 8x. If S is a power-of-2, then the memory usage factor goes down to 4x.

Heavy glare using the FFT-based method in an HDR image by Paul Debevec

This image with heavy glare has been output with some Arion-related experimental tonemapping code I am working on these days.


Assuming that we are only interested in sheer performance:

1- The FFT-based method is (by far) the fastest for large images/kernels. Interestingly, the algorithm is not affected by the size of the kernel, which can be as large as the (padded) image itself without a penalty.
2- The FFT-based method becomes even faster if the same kernel is applied multiple times. The kernel FFT can be calculated just once, and then be re-used.
3- Due to the heavy setup overhead in the FFT-based method, the separable method can be faster for small (separable) kernels where s is in the range of log(S’).

Last, but certainly not least, there is a much faster and more light-weight algorithm for the special case of Box/Gaussian Blur. I will talk about this in a separate blog entry.

Fast convolutions (I)

In my previous post it was stated that the convolution of a WxH image with a wxh kernel is a new WxH image where each pixel is the sum of wxh products obtained as the central pixel of the kernel slides across each of the pixels in the original image. This double-double loop leads to an impractical O(n^4) algorithm complexity.

Fortunately, we can do better, but the key here is not in optimizing the code, but in making use of some mathematical weaponry. Let’s analyze the options that we have:

1- Naive implementation.
2- Separable convolution kernels.
3- The convolution theorem.
4- Can we do EVEN better?

1- Naive implementation.


– Trivial implementation in just a few lines of code.
– Works for any input size, and for any type of kernel.
– Trivial clamping at the boundaries.
– Allows for multi-threading.


– Ridiculously inefficient: O(n^4).
– Needs an auxiliary WxH buffer.
– By default, the output of the operation is returned in the auxiliary buffer (not in-place).
– Not very cache friendly due to the constant jumps across rows.
– Applying the same kernel multiple times has the same cost, every time.

When should I use this method?

– Never, unless the input data is tiny and clean code is more important than sheer performance.

2- Separable convolution kernels.

A separable convolution kernel is one that can be broken into two 1D (vertical and horizontal) projections. For these projections the (matrix) product of the 1xh vertical kernel by the wx1 horizontal kernel must restore the original wxh 2D kernel.

1D vertical and horizontal Gaussian convolution

Conveniently enough, the most usual convolution kernels (e.g., Gaussian blur, box blur, …) happen to be separable.

The convolution of an image by a separable convolution kernel becomes the following:

1- Convolute the rows of the original image with the horizontal kernel projection.
2- Convolute the columns of the resulting image with the vertical kernel projection.

Note: These two steps are commutative.

2-step separable vs. brute-force 2D Gaussian convolution


– More efficient than the naive implementation: O(n^3).
– Trivial implementation in just a few lines of code.
– Trivial clamping at the boundaries.
– Works for any input size.
– Since this is a two-step process, the convolution can be returned in-place.
– Cache-friendly.
– Allows for multi-threading.


– Only works with separable kernels.
– Needs an auxiliary WxH buffer.
– Applying the same kernel multiple times has the same cost, every time.

When should I use this method?

– I do not use this method anywhere in RCSDK. You will understand why soon.

3- The convolution theorem.

“The convolution in the spatial domain is equivalent to a point-wise product in the frequency domain, and vice-versa.”

This method relies on the (Fast) Fourier Transform, which is one of the most beautiful mathematical constructs, ever. Seriously!

The convolution of an image by a generic kernel becomes the following:

1- Compute the Fourier Transform of the image.
2- Compute the Fourier Transform of the kernel.
3- Multiply both Fourier Transforms, point-wise.
4- Compute the Inverse Fourier Transform of the result.

Brute-force 2D Gaussian vs. the convolution theorem



– Even more efficient: O(n^2路log(n)).
– Works with any convolution kernel, separable or not.
– Should the kernel be applied multiple times, the FFT of the kernel can be computed just once, and then be re-used.
– The FFT/IFFT and the convolution product are cache-friendly.
– The FFT/IFFT and the convolution product allow for multi-threading.


– Definitely not easy to implement, unless you own an FFT module that suits your needs.
– The FFT operates on buffers with power-of-2 dimensions. This means that the input image (and the kernel) must be padded with zeroes to a larger size (i.e., extra setup time + memory).
– Both the image and the kernel are transformed, which requires two auxiliary buffers instead of one.
– Each FFT produces complex-number values, which doubles the memory usage of each auxiliary buffer.
– The dynamic range of the FFT values is generally wilder than that of the original image. This requires a careful implementation, and the use of floating-point math regardless of the bit-depth and range of the input image.
– This method doesn’t do any clamping at the boundaries of the image, producing a very annoying warp-around effect that may need special handling (e.g., more padding).

When should I use this method?

– Every time that a large generic convolution kernel (i.e., not a simple blur) is involved.
– The best examples I can think of in RCSDK/Arion are glare and bloom.

4- Can we do EVEN better?

Oh yes. We can do much better, at least in the very particular case of blur. I will talk about this in detail in a dedicated blog entry, at some point.

Some implementation remarks:

All the algorithms presented above allow for multi-threading. Naturally, MT does not change the algorithm complexity, since the maximum number of threads is fixed, but you can get very decent speeds in practical cases if you combine sleek code with proper multi-threading. In the separable case (2), MT must be used twice. First for the rows, and then for the cols. In the FFT case (3), the FFT itself can be multi-threaded (in a rows/cols fashion as well). The huge point-wise product in frequency space can be MT’ed too.

Since convolutions are usually applied on very large images, writing cache-friendly code can make a big difference. Assuming that the memory layout of your image/kernel is per rows, make sure to arrange your loops so memory accesses are as consecutive as possible. This is immediate for the loops that do a 1D convolution on each row. However, for the loops that do a 1D convolution on each column, it may help to use a local cache to transpose a column to a row back and forth.

Point-Spread Functions & Convolutions

One might explain what a convolution is in many ways. However, in the field of image processing, there is an informal and very intuitive way to understand convolutions through the concept of Point-Spread Functions and their inverses.

A PSF is an arbitrary description of the way in which a point spreads its energy around itself in 2D space.

Classic PSFs: 1D box, 2D box, 1D Gaussian, 2D Gaussian

Although this is not a mandatory requirement, the integral of a PSF usually equals 1, so no energy is gained or lost in the process. The above image does not match this requirement for the sake of visualization; the PSFs on the right column have been un-normalized for better visibility. On the other hand, the range of a PSF (how far away from the source point energy is allowed to reach) can be infinite. However, in most practical uses the range is finite, and usually as short as possible.

So, a PSF(x,y) is a function f:R^2->R or, in the case of images, a finite/discrete real-value 2D matrix. For example, PSF(x,y)=0.2 means that the point P=(a,b) sends 20% of its energy to point Q=(a+x,b+y).

If we apply the above PSFs to all the pixels in an image, this is what we get:

Classic PSFs applied to an image

WARNING: Do not confuse this with a convolution. We’re not there yet.

The inverse of a PSF (let’s use the term IPSF for now) is a description of what amount of energy a point receives from the points around itself in 2D space.

So, an IPSF(x,y) is also a function f:R^2->R or, in the case of images, a finite/discrete real-value 2D matrix. For example, IPSF(x,y)=0.2 means that the point Q=(a,b) receives 20% of the energy from point P=(a+x,b+y).

From here follows that a PSF and the corresponding IPSF are radially symmetric:

IPSF(-x,-y) = PSF(x,y)

If P=(a,b) spreads energy to Q=(a+x,b+y), then Q=(a’,b’) gathers energy from P=(a’-x,b’-y).

Finally: a convolution is the result of applying the same IPSF to all the pixels of an image. Note that IPSF matrices are more commonly known as convolution kernels, or filter kernels.

Conveniently enough, the PSFs displayed above are all radially symmetric with respect to themselves. As a matter of fact, it is true to most ‘popular’ convolution kernels (e.g., 1D/2D box blur, 1D/2D Gaussian blur, …) that the PSF and the IPSF are identical. This makes the process of spreading/gathering energy equivalent in the cases presented above, but this is not true to other (more exotic) kernels.

In the case of image convolutions, kernels are usually square matrices of dimensions DxD, where D=(R+1+R) and R is generally known as the radius of the kernel. This way, kernels have a central pixel. For instance, a kernel of R=3 (where each pixel is affected by neighbors never farther than 3px away) would be a 7×7 matrix.

The convolution is a fundamental operation in Digital Image Processing, and most image filters (e.g., Gaussian Blur in Photoshop) are based on convolutions in one way or another.

Naive algorithm: a convolution is an operation that takes two discrete real-value matrices (i.e., a luminance image and a convolution kernel) and makes the center of the kernel slide along each pixel in the image. At each pixel, the kernel is multiplied point-wise with all the pixels it covers, and the sum of these products is used to replace the original pixel value. Since this operation modifies pixels on the go, an auxiliary buffer is necessary.

Let’s assume that the resolution of the image is WxH pixels, and the convolution kernel is a matrix of dimensions wxh. The convolution needs to run through WxH pixels and at each pixel, it must perform and add wxh products. This is as slow as O(n^4) = Terrible.

As a matter of fact, the convolution of even a small kernel with a large image can take an eternity (literally) to compute using this naive solution. Fortunately, there is some mathematical trickery that we can take advantage of. More on fast convolutions in a future post.

Bonus remark: A particularly nice example of PSF is glare, which comes from the Fraunhoffer diffraction of the camera/eye aperture. Below you can see what happens when a glare PSF is applied to an HDR image. The actual implementation convolutes the IPSF (the radial-symmetric of the glare PSF) with the source HDR image.

Glare on an Arion render made by Raphael Aguirre

Typical glare PSF for a 6-blade iris

Circular & radial blur

Circular and radial blur can be implemented in different ways. The method I am going to describe here is reasonably efficient, provided that there is a hyper-fast 1D box-based blur routine at one’s disposal (more on that in a future post). The algorithm is quite straightforward to implement, and also has the beautiful property of being able to do both circular and radial blur at the same time.

I will work on grayscale images, although as usual the process can by extended to color images by performing the same operations on the three R, G, and B channels.

The key to circular/radial blur is to not work on the image space directly, but on a dual space, where cartesian co-ordinates are transformed to polar co-ordinates around the central pixel. Like this:

Cartesian-to-polar transform

Each column in the transformed image is one of the ‘spokes’ that go from the center to one of the pixels at the perimeter in the original image. The length of the largest spoke is half a diagonal, and the perimeter of a WxH image has 2路(W+H-2) pixels. So the transformed image is a buffer of dimensions ceil(sqrt(W^2+H^2)/2) and 2路(W+H-2).

We also need an inverse transform that restores the original image from its polar form.

Note that, for better results, the transform and also its inverse must do proper filtering. Since the spokes are diagonals that do not follow the arrangement of the pixels in the original image, the process of transforming and un-transforming is not exactly reciprocal. i.e., un-transforming the transformed image does not restore the original image identically. In simpler words: this process adds some little blur due to filtering. However, this is ok, because we’re aiming at circular/radial blur after all.

Below are the schematics of the type of filtering I am using in RCSDK. When I sample a pixel centered at (xm,ym) along a spoke, I integrate the original image, constrained to a 1×1 square area. This integration simply takes the (up to) 4 overlapped pixels, and weighs each of them by the corresponding surface overlapping factor:

Sample 1×1 px area

Note also that the inverse transform must ‘undo’ the filtering, by splatting contributions to the final image using the same surface overlapping factors.

…and here comes the interesting part.

1- If we 1D-blur the rows in the polar-space image, and then apply the inverse transform, we get a circular blur of the original image.

2- If we 1D-blur the columns in the polar-space image, and then apply the inverse transform, we get a radial blur of the original image.

A fast box-based 1D blur implementation can run in O(n), regardless of the radius of the blur. Let’s assume a square image of side S. The size of the transformed image is 2路(S+S-2)路sqrt(2)路S/2, which means a quadratic complexity, or linear with respect to the number of pixels. The algorithm is made of fairly simple arithmetic operations, and allows for multi-threading.

Here you can take a look at a couple of filtering examples taken from my RCSDK Unit Testing System:

Circular blur

Radial blur

Some bonus remarks:

1- If the amount of blur becomes progressively small as you approach the center, radial blur becomes lens blur.
2- If the amount of blur used in radial blur is different for each color component, you get chromatic aberration.
3- If you work with spectral colors, instead of RGB, chromatic aberration looks great even when the blur stretches colors along long streaks.

Lens blur & heavy chromatic aberration

Some more final remarks:

– In general, blur operations are clamped to the boundaries of the buffer they operate on. However, in the case of circular blur, one must warp-around from the first to the last spoke.
– It is not really necessary to create the transformed polar image, which is (much) larger than the original. One can feed the 1D blur with transformed pixels directly, and save some memory. Doing so doesn’t imply a performance penalty, because the algorithm runs through each spoke only once.